You know what it’s like….you have a problem with a health insurance account, or a computer, or something that’s important to your daily life. You can’t find the answers in any of your books, pamphlets, or online, so you decide to pick up a phone to get some help from a real person. You dial and a mechanical voice answers, giving you a list of which button to press for your particular question. Unfortunately, your problem isn’t really covered by any of the choices, but you pick one, and then you wait on hold. If you’re lucky another computerized voice tells you how long the wait time will be, but usually, you just sit there, listening to painful on-hold music, broken up by a recorded voice telling you how important your call is to the amorphous company that is supposedly going to provide you service. When you finally get a real person on the line, each of you has to struggle with understanding the accent of the other, and then there’s the whole problem of trying to explain something you’re looking at to a person who can’t see what you’re trying to describe.
Now, imagine that that’s the only level of service available to you if you have an issue you need help with on your farm or ranch. Imagine that instead of a visit from a knowledgeable, caring person, who comes out and talks to you, walks the fields and pastures, and scritches your cows on the neck as the two of you talk over yields and the weather and plans for improvements, you’re on own. You could still have all those Natural Resources Conservation Service contracts to sign, only now without that person to walk you through the alphabet soup of programs like EQIP, WHIP, GRP, AMA, and CRP to decide which practices will be most effective your operation.
It costs something to get those people out there, on farms. Some of them come from the “Private Sector”. They might be nutritionists, nutrient management planners, feed dealers, and they have something to share. But a lot of them are “Public Sector” folks. Extension agents, NRCS conservationists and planners. But the resources to get those people onto farms is drying up. The mileage dollars, the salary, the dedicated time has been sliced and diced til there is hardly any left, and the dollars have been moved elsewhere.
For half a dozen years, I helped NRCS field offices write grazing plans with the farmers, with the idea that a grazing plan would help develop a better contract for those practices that make grazing management better and easier. I helped because NRCS didn’t have the “CTA” dollars (Conservation Technical Assistance) in their budget to dedicate portions of their own employees’ time to do the on-farm visits necessary to develop effective grazing plans. To be honest, the budget for each of those grazing plans often didn’t cover enough of my time to do the job either, so time got squeezed from the rest of life, and we made do. What we all really needed, and still do, is more time. There’s no line in the budget, though, that allows us to take enough time to do what we really need to do.
Though no one is really happy with the phone-in system, it continues to thrive and grow because it’s “efficient” and less expensive. Paying for a person’s time can be costly, and the value of the one-on-one contact more difficult to measure. And now, the value of that contact to farmers and ranchers, that “Conservation Technical Assistance” is being considered by the House and Senate appropriations committees. It’s easy for them to figure out how to put money into infrastructure and then measure outputs. Millions of dollars buys a lot of manure lagoons in a bottom line easy to calculate. Capturing manure couldn’t be more clear cut. But calculating and reporting the benefits of a person, that’s a little less tangible and harder for them to put a finger on.
That’s why they have asked for input from the people who have been the recipients of one-on-one on farm or ranch assistance. They’ve asked for local, on the ground stories describing what you’ve experienced, and how you’ve benefited from Conservation Technical Assistance and the Conservation Planning Process.
It always boils down to the bottom line. In this case, the bottom line is: there is a value in on-farm visits from smart, helpful people. A lot of NRCS employees can help farmers just by coming out, listening, and sharing hard-earned knowledge. Though there are studies that show that the technical assistance provided by the NRCS has been very cost effective and even better than private Technical Service Providers, right now, farm visits aren’t getting enough respect to keep them around unless someone says something.
Do we want to be involved in or discuss politics? NO, not really! Do we want you to turn into lobbyists? NO! But we do want you to know what is going on so you can be your own best advocate. On Pasture is about learning and sharing information that makes your life as a grazier better. If all the On Pasture writers could come visit all of you in person, we would. But since we can’t we’re just going to keep on writing. But there are people working for the NRCS who CAN come visit you if you tell the folks considering Conservation Technical Assistance that it’s important. So, as painful as it might be to talk to a politician, tell them your stories. Send them to your legislators, and to NRCS Chief Jason Weller at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to tell them that On Pasture sent you. 🙂